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Belarus: Minsk Theater Group Appears In New York

The Free Theater of Minsk (RFE/RL) NEW YORK, October 16, 2006 -- Belarus's Free Theater company will make its first U.S. appearance today.

Appearing at the Impact Theater Festival in New York, players will read in English work from Belarusian playwrights.

Free Theater co-founder and playwright Natalya Kolyada says the company's members have been subject to harassment, beatings, blackmail, and imprisonment at the hands of the authoritarian government in Minsk.

She says the Belarusian government routinely intimidates actors and playwrights who join the Free Theater. Some of their actors, who also worked with state-supported theaters, have since been fired.

But after an article about the Free Theatre was published in "The New York Times" in February, Kolyada says there has been an avalanche of letters and emails from sympathizers in the United States.

Kolyada, who founded the theater with her husband Mikalay Khalezin, says that last week they received a warm letter of support from Harold Pinter, the English playwright and Nobel Prize winner.

"For us it was always of utmost importance that what is talked about in the plays be heard throughout the whole world," Kolyada says. "Because the subjects of the plays are important themes for Belarus: the tragedies of the people who disappeared, the political prisoners, the detained, people who were tortured, representatives of the counter culture who have no place in the official system, they do not exist, the government says. So, the idea that it will be staged or read in New York was unquestionably supported by us."

In the New York readings, select scenes from three plays are on the schedule, each one lasting around 15-20 minutes.


One of the scenes comes from "They saw dreams," a play by Kolyada.

It concerns the experiences of women whose husbands have "disappeared" in Belarus under the regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

One of those women is Iryna Krasouskaya, who will attend the readings in New York. Her former husband, businessman Anatol Krasouski, "disappeared" in September 1999, along with the prominent opposition leader Viktar Hanchar, after visiting a sauna in Minsk.

Krasouskaya, who has since remarried and is now living in the United States, told RFE/RL about the first harrowing months after her husband's disappearance.

"Honestly, I don't know how I survived because I always thought I was a very weak woman. My husband was always trying to protect me from life's misfortunes, sometimes he wouldn't tell me about life's hard realities, he thought that I was a very weak person," Krasouskaya says. "When he disappeared I didn't know how to survive and I didn't think that I would survive, it was hard. Suddenly the money disappeared, suddenly we discovered irregularities in the company, psychologically it was so hard."

Prominent Patrons

The Free Theater has received a lot of international support. Among its patrons are Vaclav Havel, the renowned playwright and former Czech president, and Tom Stoppard, an acclaimed British playwright.

Aaron Landsman, a New York-based actor and producer, is the driving force behind the theater's first appearance in the United States.

"I was in Texas for some work-related stuff and I started reading this article about the Free Theater, which was actually on Radio Free Europe's website. And I saw pictures of one of their shows and it looked really fascinating and looked very similar to some of the work I do," Landsman says.

Landsman wrote the theater offering his help and, in March 2006, he says he received a "heart-breaking" e-mail from the Free Theater describing the kind of problems they encountered in Belarus. He decided then to produce readings of their works in the United States.

Landsman found receptive ears in New York. The readings will take place at Barnard College's Performing Arts Center in Manhattan and will be introduced by Tom Stoppard.

"Tom Stoppard has been an advocate for the Free Theatre because he went and visited them, saw other shows, and has been talking about their work mostly in the U.K.," Landsman says. "So, his presence there is going to draw more people, and he is going to talk for about 10 minutes at the beginning of the reading about the Free Theatre, about his experiences in Belarus, and possibly about may be what we can do here from now on to help."

The festival runs through October 22.

RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, And Moldova Report

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